The West, FIFA and Us: We're all being hypocritical about the World Cup
To launch the World Cup in Qatar, FIFA president Gianni Infantino held a press conference where he freestyled a bizarre, 1.5-hour-long rant.
The opening salvo of the speech was headline-grabbing, wherein Infantino declared, "Today I feel Qatari. Today I feel Arab. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel [like] a migrant worker." Upon being reminded of the existence of women, he said he felt like one, too. Gianni understands the discrimination these demographics face, apparently because he had been bullied as a child for having red hair. Luckily this is no longer a problem for him, but he also bears the scar of growing up a minority in Switzerland: "Plus, I was Italian, so imagine."
Imagine, indeed, the pain of being Italian and having to make do with Swiss cheese. It certainly qualifies Gianni to know what it's like to visit a country where a man can't book a hotel room with his husband. Though, perhaps to better get a sense of what it's like to be a migrant worker in Qatar, Gianni could try getting electrocuted, dehydrated, or falling from a great height. He needn't worry too much about that last one: some Bangladeshi workers who fell during the construction spree presaging the Qatar World Cup survived! Blinded for life, true, but you must look on the bright side of life. Which, I suppose, you can't if you've been blinded for life.
Behind the noise of Gianni's general incoherence, there are a few salient points that emerged from his address.
The first and most obvious point behind his discourse: please do not be mean to Qatar, which is represented here as a bullied child. The primary reason for Gianni to ask everyone to lay off Qatar is, unfortunately, not addressed (the reason is startlingly vast sums of money.)
Instead, he attempts to dissemble by arguing that Qatar is a state with its own values which need to be respected, that Qatar is open to changing and doing better on LGBTQ rights and worker conditions, and Qatar is a state that faces tremendous international scrutiny because of its oil reserves. The West, Gianni argued, is hypocritical for wanting so much from Qatar while at the same time wagging its collective finger at an Arab, Muslim nation and demanding that it change its ways of life to suit Western values.
In Gianni's worldview, Qatar is not a naughty child, but rather a child that's trying to do his very best and needs to develop at his own pace. There is an irony to challenging Orientalist discourses of the Middle East by continuing to infantilise Qatar; but Gianni seems immune to irony.
Qatar has indeed made progress on workers' rights, in that they've curtailed some of the more sinister systems they had in place and have proudly announced that, unlike The Guardian's exposé of 6,500 worker deaths in 2010-2020, only 300 people have actually died in World Cup-related construction. In our current post-irony world, 300 deaths are not just acceptable, but exemplary and definitely prove that not giving Qatar the hosting rights in 2010 would have been racist and that there was no massive amount of bribery involved. Please, stop bullying the child with these accusations.
One of Gianni's more stunning statements was, "I think for what we Europeans have been doing the last 3,000 years we should be apologising for the next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons to people." He argued that Western states were in no position to critique Qatar's record on migrant workers' rights, because at the very least Qatar was giving such workers space to participate legally in the economy instead of preventing migration.
Before anything else on this: as of 2021, Qatar hosted 197 refugees. In total. Its cup doth not runneth over with the milk of human kindness.
The weaponisation of pro-migrant, anticolonial, leftist discourse in support of Qatar's hosting of the FIFA World Cup, by the FIFA president himself, represents the apogee of ironic, self-deluded hogwash.
The West has a history of hypocritical, holier-than-thou moral intervention across a world that it has despoiled and debased through colonialism, and which it now continues to prey upon via corporations and international institutions such as FIFA – which partner with authoritarian regimes for mutual business interests that ultimately exploit, maim and kill brown and black workers. It is also at the same time true that the economies of the Gulf are victims of a Western discourse which Benjamin Smith called "Market Orientalism," wherein their every economic action is viewed as suspicious, incompetent, and self-aggrandising.
There are cogent points to be made regarding whether or not Qatar's record of workers' rights really does stand up as uniquely terrible, and how much of the backlash against Qatar hosting the World Cup is rooted in Orientalist imaginations of despotism and cultural backwardness – points that must be made with the awareness that Qatar does deserve most of such criticism.
However, at the end of the day, we can never erase the deaths of 6,500 workers (it would be further violence to those dead to instead take seriously the number 300 which is being waved at us by Qatar.) The human cost should not prevent us from having nuanced conversations about Qatar, but we cannot arrive at a position where these deaths and maimings can be forgotten; they certainly cannot be presented as hypocritical Western pearl-clutching. Nuance cannot restore a man's sight.
More insidiously, in the same way in which Gianni presented the Qataris as children while defending them (by arguing that concern for migrant rights is Western hypocrisy), he engages in the silencing of the migrant workers themselves, who indeed have important things to say about their own exploitation. Many Western news outlets have reported the failures of Qatar and investigated the rotten house of cards called FIFA that has allowed this blood-stained football tournament to take place. And many of these Western news outlets are doubtlessly hypocritical. We have also spoken, here in Bangladesh and across the world, but Gianni does not address us, nor our grievances.
We cannot afford his speaker's fees.
Zoheb Mashiur is a doctoral researcher on racial discourse and colonial history, based at the University of Kent.